If it hadn’t been for his season-saving play as time expired last Friday night in Oakton’s 14-13 win against Centreville in the Northern Region Division 6 semifinal, senior quarterback Kyle Downer would have spent the rest of the school year shaking his head, thinking about what could have been.
His diving, spinning touchdown scramble after the clock reached all zeroes will go down as one of the greatest plays in Oakton football history. But before that, he missed his share of open receivers; fumbled the ball and then was burned for a long touchdown pass on Centreville’s subsequent possession; missed another receiver on 4th-and-goal; and committed an intentional grounding penalty as time was running down.
Yet in the final minute, Downer wasn’t in the mood for any mistakes.
After the grounding penalty, Oakton was faced with a 2nd-and-20 from the Centreville 43- yard line, and Downer got the yardage back with three straight completions for 30 yards and a pair of first downs. Another scramble forced the panicked Centreville defense to call timeout with eight seconds to play and the ball on the 9. Downer scrambled away from the defense again, this time getting out of bounds at the 5. With three seconds to go, he took the snap and looked to his left.
With no one open and two of Centreville’s best defenders, Prince Wright and Xavier Nickens-Yzer, bearing down, Downer sprinted forward and to his right, then turned upfield again. He launched himself over the goal line and held on to the ball even after being sandwiched in midair by a pair of Centreville players. Brian Burns nailed the extra point to clinch the game.
“You have to think ‘next play,’” Downer said of his resiliency. “My quarterback coach always preaches that, even if you score a touchdown, move on. If you throw an interception, move on.”
And just like that, the No. 7 Cougars (8-4, 1-4 Concorde) moved on to their first appearance in the region final since 2008. They’ll go on the road Saturday afternoon against top-seeded Westfield (12-0, 5-0 Concorde).
Speaking of mistakes, if it weren’t for a number of errors by host Centreville, the Cougars wouldn’t have been able to sniff a win. Much has been made of the Wildcats youth this year, and perhaps that lack of experience hurt them, just a season after a senior-laden team went all the way to the state finals.
Coach Chris Haddock, never shy, spent much of the first half screaming “God bless America!” (instead of something profane) after his players failed to line up in the proper formation; were called for two delay-of-game penalties; missed a field goal; and two other times failed to come away with points after drives ended inside the Oakton 10. In the second half, two long runs by A.J. Turner — one that would have been a 55-yard touchdown — were called back due to holding penalties.
But perhaps the biggest Centreville mistake was calling timeout and letting Oakton regroup with less than 10 seconds to play.
“That actually helped us,” said Oakton coach Jason Rowley, who explained that the Cougars practice their two-minute offense twice per week. “When you’re playing against a great defense like that, you want to make sure you have the right play called, and we weren’t always certain. It’s good to be able to run a two-minute drill and not panic.”
The break allowed Downer to catch his breath, which was helpful after having played the entire game, including punting duties.
“It’s tough playing the full game, but it’s one of those things,” said Downer, clutching the game ball Rowley had awarded him in the postgame huddle. “The last drive, it’s do-or-die. I can either be weak there and give up the game, or I can push through. And as a team, we decided to push through.”
Downer finished with more than 200 yards of offense, almost all of it in the second half. He was quick to praise the rest of his team, especially his defense. Joe Filerman recovered a fumble, Chris Larkin intercepted a pass and Greg DeRosa got open for Downer’s touchdown pass that evened the game at 7-7 late in the third quarter. Oakton’s defensive line seemed a little too small and a little too slow during a first half that saw the Wildcats run 41 plays to their 12. But they recovered in the second half — forcing a three-and-out that set-up the game-winning, 61-yard drive.
“We decided it was time to make a stop, and we came through, did what we needed to do,” said Filerman.
The victory was the Cougars’ first of the year against one of the traditionally strong Concorde District teams after regular-season losses to Westfield, Robinson, Chantilly and the Wildcats. It's a confidence-booster, said Filerman, heading into the match-up with Westfield, a team that beat the Cougars, 28-14, on Oct. 19.
The win also helped the Cougars make good on one of their goals — to practice on Thanksgiving.
“We got turkey!” they yelled, as the victory began to sink in.